Wednesday 29 January 2020

Quick on the trigger

Can we ever begin to heal trauma by hiding from it?

Features writer Katie Byrne
Features writer Katie Byrne
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

Trigger warning: the following column deals with the subject of trigger warnings and may present a trigger to certain people.

When I was in school, there was a tacit code of conduct that everyone observed when a classmate lost a loved one. If a classmate had, say, lost her father, you were expected to refrain from saying the word 'Dad' in her company. Otherwise you'd receive a sharp kick under the table.

This always struck me as silly carry-on, not least because the nudges and widening of eyes that generally went on around the bereaved girl seemed to highlight the unpleasantness that her classmates were desperately trying to avoid.

This aspect of my school days always comes to mind when I read about 'trigger warnings' - a disclaimer that is gaining momentum in US college campuses, and certain online media outlets, to indicate content with potentially traumatic subject matter.

Trigger warnings have their beginning in internet chat forums, where they were initially used to flag topics that dealt with subjects such as rape and sexual assault. Nowadays, the list of potential triggers is lengthening as quickly as the use of trigger warnings is growing.

I've seen trigger warnings appended to the subjects of suicide, bullying and addiction, just as I've read about university trigger warnings on literature I read when I was in school.

In 2014, students at Oberlin College, Ohio, circulated a draft guide asking for trigger warnings on their syllabus content. A number of classic novels were pinpointed in the document, including Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, which was thought to "trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more".

Even the very words 'trigger warning' has become a trigger warning on the website Everyday Feminism. "We use the phrase 'content warning' instead of 'trigger warning', as the word 'trigger' relies on and evokes violent weaponry imagery," they write. "This could be re-traumatising for folks who have suffered military, police, and other forms of violence."

Strictly speaking, triggers are related to Post Traumatic Shock Disorder (PTSD), a term that came into use after the Vietnam War. In later years, psychiatrists observed that certain triggers - in particular sights, sounds and smells unique to the patient - can evoke painful memories in those who have been diagnosed with the condition.

Yet, there is scant evidence to suggest that the written word is a trigger for those suffering from PTSD. And even if there was, what use is a trigger warning in the classroom when the smell of mushroom soup may provoke a traumatic memory in the canteen an hour later?

The vast majority of the students campaigning for the use of trigger warnings have not been diagnosed with PTSD. They may well have unresolved trauma - it could be argued that we all do - but how helpful avoidance strategies are in this regard is unclear.

Crucially, a trigger warning promotes the message that potentially traumatic subjects should be avoided. That awful thing that happened to you? Just close your eyes and put your fingers in your ears - fa la la la la la. Besides, we have a pill for that...

More to the point, most mental health professionals are of the opinion that healing begins where the wound was made, and while the college classroom isn't designed to heal trauma, it shouldn't be a place to hide from it either. Like much of today's pseudo-liberal PC agenda, trigger warnings purport to empower people. Yet real empowerment only occurs when we learn to overcome our setbacks. This isn't possible for a person who is consistently, and almost ritualistically, reminded that they are a victim.

Some educators argue that a trigger warning is simply a reminder to students who have suffered trauma to 'turn on' their coping skills when certain subjects are discussed.

But is it a cue for traumatised students to fight or take flight? Does the traumatised student brace herself for emotionally strenuous content - or does she imagine fluffy white clouds and hope against hope that her fellow students don't notice that her neck is reddening?

And where exactly do we draw the line? Potentially traumatic subject matter is unique to every person. Take the book about the mother with Alzheimer's disease, and the one about the father with borderline personality disorder and the one about the child with cancer? Are these subject matters any less traumatic to those who have personal experience of them?

In that case, we may as well put a trigger warning around the entire world news cycle, songs by Adele and that photograph of Peter Stringfellow wearing a thong on the beach.

Trigger warning: life is traumatic by its very nature and we only delay the healing process when we avoid the pain.

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